Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yorkshire, Place, and Faith

The Guardian has posted a wonderfully poignant little film that features Madeleine Bunting, (author of The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre), along with her son, as they visit her father's plot of land in Yorkshire--on which he built a marvelous chapel filled with his sculptures. (Unfortunately it can't be embedded here, but do follow the link.)

The mini-documentary does a tremendous job of capturing that tremulous English sense of "place" that suffuses Tolkien--a sense which is itself drenched with the mist and damp of grey northern skies. (The soundtrack is no small part of this.) It seems to me that Yorkshire is especially enchanted in this respect (but that's an effect of bias and my own sense of nostalgia for that place). It's also a reminder that the faith of England is much older than Anglicanism--and perhaps why the paganism of its tribal heritage was so well primed for the sacramentalism of Catholic faith.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Tyranny of Email

While the writing is far from lyrical, and while the book feels a bit "padded," John Freeman's The Tyranny of Email deserves attention and discussion. In a way, it's going to tell you something you already know; on the other hand, it synthesizes this common knowledge into a compelling and convicting account of how bad our habits have become. Like Aquinas' treatises on the virtues and vices, it provides a taxonomy to name our sins, and that diagnosis could be a first step to becoming someone else. Indeed, I read it as an invitation to consider spiritual disciplines as the only suitable countermeasure.

I'm only part way through, but consider a couple of snippets. Who, for instance, can identify with this?
E-mail is addictive, it has been shown, in the same way that slot machines are addictive. You press the send/receive button just as a gambler pulls down a slot machine lever, because you know that yo will receive a reward (mail/a payout) some of the time. The best way to increase the chance of a reward is to press "Send" a lot. In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail thirty to forty times an hour.

It's true, isn't it? You just never know when you could receive that email that might change your life! And while you're waiting, clicking and clicking and watching and waiting, you're not doing anything that could change your life. (So yes, I need something like EA: "My name is Jamie Smith, and I am an email addict...")

Most compelling, though, is Freeman's diagnosis of what this does to the way we inhabit the world:
Working at the speed of e-mail is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train--and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The e-mail inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest--there's always something new and even more urgent reasing what we originally thought was the day's priority.

Freeman eventually counsels some practices changes of habit (e.g., don't check your email either first thing in the morning or late at night; check it twice a day; etc.). Well and good, and I'm hoping--praying like mad--that I could incorporate some of these into my own rhythms. But of course what we also need is a community that structures itself in this way, which changes its expectations about instanteous communication. We can't fight this tyranny on our own; it will require institutional change, and big ships are hard to turn.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Visiting prisoners has historically been central to the church's works of mercy (Matt. 25:36). Philippe Claudel's film, Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long), pictures the challenge of a more rigorous call to compassion: welcoming the prisoner back home. The story centers around Juliette, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who embodies the most haggard beauty, the most tired elegance, with downcast eyes that are nevertheless enchanted. The film is worth watching just for the first five minutes of her performance. But it is matched, I think, by Elsa Zylberstein playing her younger sister Lea who is the "host," the one who has loved her so long.

It would be difficult to give the sort of rich reading I'd like without doling out spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a must-see--a powerful meditation on love as forgiveness, an almost Derridean enactment of love as hospitality even to "the monster." But it is also a profound study in the ultimate nihilism of autonomy, including the autonomy of the closed family unit unhooked from a wider community of support. This is not a beautiful tragedy; it is about the beauty of love in the face of tragedy, even evil--a filmic testimony to the fact that love is stronger than death, even stronger than murder.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Problem with "Free Speech"

Michel Foucault's Fearless Speech is concerned with how parrhesia (free speech) became "problematized" in Greek democracy. But it doesn't take much imagination to start drawing analogies. Consider just this snippet:

"The problem, very roughly put, was the following. Democracy is founded by a politeia, a constitution, where the demos, the people, exercise power, and where everyone is equal in front of the law. Such a constitution, however, is condemned to give equal place to all forms of parrhesia, even the worst. Because parrhesia is given even to the worst citizens, the overwhelming influence of bad, immoral, or ignorant speakers may lead the citizenry into tyranny, or may otherwise endanger the city. Hence parrhesia may be dangerous for democracy itself (p. 77).


Could one imagine a better description of contemporary talk radio and its effects?

Peguy: The Mystery of Hope

Yesterday I was working through Graham Ward's (unfortunately neglected) book, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice and there discovered a snippet from Charles Peguy's poem, "The Portal of the Mystery of Hope" (1912). It was like I'd been waiting my whole life to read these lines:

From The Portal of the Mystery of Hope

By Charles P├ęguy

The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.

Faith doesn’t surprise me.

It’s not surprising.

I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .

That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.

Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.

It’s not surprising.

These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.

How could they not love their brothers.

How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by.

And my son had such love for them. . . .

But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.

Even me.

That is surprising.

That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.

That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.

That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.

And I’m surprised by it myself.

And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.

~trans. David L. Schindler, Jr.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New Small Joy

I just recently discovered that Canada's CBC Classical is available as a radio "station" on iTunes (no doubt it's been there for years), and haven't turned it off since. Commerical-free classical music from across the centuries, by top-notch orchestras, with no annoying commentary. And the running line at the top of iTunes helps you keep tabs on what's playing, helping to discover new works and composers that catch your attention. It's a fabulous way to enliven one's own tired playlist and doesn't cost a dime. O joy!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Faith, Film, and Justice in Seattle

Those in the Pacific Northwest might be interested in this year's Faith, Film, and Justice conference organized by the good folks at The Other Journal. This is an annual event that hosts the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival. The conference includes keynotes by theologians, ethicists and activists (including, this year, Kelly Johnson, Emmanuel Katongole, Rob Morris, and myself).

I'll be giving a keynote entitled "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes: A Theological Engagement with Freedom of Expression" as a prelude to watching the film, Burma VJ, which documents the work of news VJs in the closed country of Burma, tackling issues of interpretation and freedom of speech/sight.

See a list of the other films being screened and discussed.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Holmes and Naugle on "Desiring the Kingdom"

Two noted "worldviewists" (?) have recently responded to Eric Miller's review of Desiring the Kingdom. In letters to Christianity Today, Arthur Holmes and David Naugle both reply.

Holmes' response misses the mark, largely because he assumes that reading Miller's brief review is somehow sufficient to know what I actually say. One might have hoped that, were he so worried, he might have actually read the book. In particular, he misses the mark on two counts. First, he questions the charges I make against him. The problem is, his name nowhere appears in the book. Second, he assumes that he would not fall prey to my critique of the "lingering rationalism" in worldview approaches because he emphasizes a "perspectivalism" that recognizes the role of pre-theoretical beliefs. On this point, I should clarify that my critique does not reject "worldview" tout court. Indeed, I think some of the more historic articulations of worldview approaches are holistic in the way I'm pressing. However, as I argue in the book, emphasizing "beliefs" is not sufficient to avoid what Charles Taylor calls "intellectualism."

I appreciate David Naugle's defense--and he rightly points out that there are versions of a worldview approach that honor the sorts of concerns I articulate in Desiring the Kingdom. However, I don't share his concern about the title of Miller's review ("Putting Worldview in its Place"). I thought the pun was suggestive and appreciated that I wasn't rejecting worldview, but was trying to relativize the role of "control beliefs."